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Israeli Finance Minister Lapid Leaves Out Peace

Akiva Eldar listened to the speech of Finance Minister Yair Lapid at the annual conference of the INSS, and remarked that the word “peace” was missing. 
Israel's Finance Minister Yair Lapid gestures as he attends the opening of the summer session of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem April 22, 2013. Lapid is seeking spending cuts of 18 billion shekels ($5 billion) and tax increases of 5 billion shekels as part of the 2013-2014 budget framework, a spokeswoman for Lapid said on Monday. REUTERS/Baz Ratner (JERUSALEM - Tags: POLITICS BUSINESS) - RTXYVX6

Addressing the annual conference of the Institute of National Security Studies (INSS) this week, Finance Minister Yair Lapid said the first person he had consulted upon taking office was President Shimon Peres. And what advice made the greatest impression on him? “Peres told me, ‘Yair, the most dangerous thing you can do is to do nothing',” Lapid said, reading from the teleprompter.

And what noteworthy deed did the leader of the country’s second-largest political party bring with him to the conference on the subject of A Changing Strategic Environment Requires Creative Thinking? Speaking to the hundreds of researchers, defense officials and diplomats in attendance, he revealed that “there’s no national security without economic security and there’s no economic security without national security.”

He then proceeded to make many promises and raise many hopes: The hope of housing, the hope of military service by all, the hope of a reduced cost of living, hope of an outstanding school system and hope of a society that places the working man front and center. I wondered whether I was the only one in the hall who felt the absence of one particular hope in the speech of the promising politician, recently dubbed by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world — the hope for peace.

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shimon Peres, who occupied Lapid’s chair many years ago, can tell him a thing or two about the link between peace and economics, or, more precisely, between occupation and economics.

Had Lapid arrived at the conference earlier, he would certainly have watched the presentation of the outgoing governor of Israel’s central bank, Professor Stanley Fischer, and perhaps found a direct correlation between the security situation in the occupied territories and that of the country’s economic indicators. For example, following the outbreak of the second intifada [2000-05], the Israeli economy entered its longest downturn since the founding of the state in 1948. GNP per capita declined 3%; industrial production declined 1%; unemployment rose to 10.3% and the cost of living index soared by 6.5%. This all happened at the same time as the global economy was starting to recover. When Lapid promised this week to roll out the red carpet for foreign investors with his own brawny arms, I recalled clearly the drop in the number of tourists during the years of the intifada, as indicated by the data of the Central Bureau of Statistics (from nearly 2.5 million a year to less than one million).

Had Lapid sat in on the speech delivered by Justice Minister (and former Foreign Minister) Tzipi Livni, the finance minister might have been impressed by the words of his cabinet colleague who ridiculed the arrogant imagery put forth by former Defense Minister Ehud Barak, likening Israel to a “villa in a jungle.” Livni explained that the conflict with the Palestinians influences Israel’s international standing as well as the legitimacy of any military operation, should one be required.

Lapid, it should be noted, was in good company. Conference host Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin, currently head of the INSS and formerly chief of military intelligence, presented the position of the Institute’s research team regarding the Iranian nuclear issue, but chose to ignore the potential contribution that a resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians could have on Iran’s isolation in the region and the world.

Yadlin said that on the day Israel’s government has to choose between an Iranian bomb and the bombing of Iran, it would have to opt for bombing Iran, which constitutes less of a severe strategic significance for Israel. Nonetheless, his team proposed that Israel refrain from taking the initiative and leading the campaign against the Iranian nukes because, inter alia, this might damage international efforts.

“Israel might find itself on its own if it were to lead such action,” Yadlin stressed. He suggested replacing the “little steps policy” adopted toward Iran in ongoing negotiations with an approach of “Big-for-Big.” In other words, present Iran with big economic and diplomatic carrots vis-a-vis big economic and diplomatic sticks, such as a naval blockade, for example, a cyber attack and a beefing up of US forces in the Gulf — to include as many as three expeditionary forces of aircraft carriers! This speech did not mention the word “peace,” either.

Tzachi Hanegbi, the Knesset member who returned to the fold of the Likud after a short flirtation with the Kadima party and who is considered an enthusiastic supporter of military action against Iran, went even further: The headline of his hard-line speech about Iran’s nuclear program was, It’s Now or Never. In his speech, Hanegbi ignored the possible popular reaction by the Arab and Muslim street, already at boiling point since the Arab Spring, to the humiliation of an Islamic state by an occupying Jewish state. What does he think will happen when pictures of Iran’s nuclear installations going up in flames are aired on Al-Jazeera, along with live broadcasts of Israeli soldiers shooting at Palestinian protesters taking to the streets? Needless to say, peace was absent from Hanegbi’s speech.

It was actually the INSS team, reviewing the effects of the turbulence in the Arab world on Israel’s strategic position, which pointed to a phenomenon already described in an earlier article on this site — in the Middle East, everything is interconnected.

The researchers stressed that whereas in the past, Israel’s main challenge was standing up to its strong neighbors; now, its challenge is to take advantage of their military weakness and the bloodshed between Sunni and Shiite radicals in the region. For now, they noted, Egypt and Jordan are maintaining their peace agreements with Israel and even tightening their defense cooperation with it.

This led the researchers to conclude that the diplomatic process with the Palestinians is essential to bring on board additional regional and international partners. “The diplomatic process is supposed to be an entry ticket to discourse with the regimes about regional challenges,” they contended and recommended examining the feasibility and sincerity of the Arab Peace Initiative and the views of the Arab public on the subject. Finally, the word “peace” was uttered at the conference.

US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel took advantage of his visit to Israel in the past week [April 21] to equip Israel with state-of-the-art weaponry and an additional commitment to block Iran’s nuclear capability, at which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu often points as posing a threat to the very existence of the State of Israel. Next week, US Secretary of State John Kerry will be coming back here as part of his efforts to bring about a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that same essential component required to put together a regional and international coalition against Iran. He would do well to meet with Yair Lapid and try to persuade him to add one more hope to his wish list — the hope of life in peace in a democratic, Jewish state. Because there cannot be national security and there’s no economic security without regional peace.

Akiva Eldar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. He was formerly a senior columnist and editorial writer for Haaretz and also served as the Hebrew daily’s US bureau chief and diplomatic correspondent. His most recent book (with Idith Zertal), Lords of the Land, on the Jewish settlements, was on the best-seller list in Israel and has been translated into English, German and Arabic. 

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